Dietary Compensation

Dietary compensation is a fascinating and highly practical concept to understand for everyone regardless of our nutrition goals related to calorie intake. The basic concept is simple. When we eat some foods, the body compensates by reducing hunger signals. I discussed in another article how simply increasing protein intake can subconsciously cause some people to eat fewer overall calories during the day resulting in weight loss due to the satiating effect of protein.

However, it’s important to understand that there are also foods that we can eat (or drink) that do not have this appetite-suppressing effect. When we consume these foods we don’t see this compensation so we find that we end up eating more overall calories unintentionally. Over time, this can result in gradual weight gain as we consistently take in more energy than our body needs for the activity we perform.

Added Sugar

Added sugar is one of the major factors that can lead to overconsumption of calories. Furthermore, many foods with added sugar also include a relatively high level of fat which further exacerbates the problem if your goal is to stay in a calorie deficit. Studies have shown that the food items that tend to rank lowest on the satiety index (a ranking that rates foods for how satiating they are – that is satisfying our appetites) are those that are highly palatable (taste very good) and have BOTH high amounts of carbohydrate and fat.

Drinking Your Calories

There is a very interesting study that looked into dietary compensation when people drink various beverages. This study found that when people drink sugar-sweetened soda, fruit juice, and even milk, they still ate an additional equal number of calories on top of those in the beverage. Let me clarify with an example from the study. When people drank 41 calories of soda, they found these people ate another 41 calories in addition to those from the soda. Basically, the body did not compensate for the calories in the soda by signaling the body that it had these calories so the body naturally still sought out more food! In contrast, increasing protein intake has been shown to have the opposite effect – causing a reduction in overall intake.


The main takeaway is this. What is your current goal?

If your goal is to eat in a calorie surplus for the purpose of gaining weight, optimizing performance, or optimizing muscle/strength gain, you may consider adding in some foods that are less satiating making it easier to get in the calories you are looking for. Drinking some of your calories may be an effective way to help with this.

If your goal is to decrease body fat by eating in a calorie deficit, you may want to minimize certain types of foods and especially limit drinking calories (protein shakes would not apply here due to the high protein content). Does this mean you should never enjoy those tasty treats that many of us love and enjoy? Absolutely not! Food should be enjoyed. It is such a huge part of many social occasions, holidays, religious get-togethers, etc. Delicious food makes us feel good and greatly contributes to our enjoyment of life. However, when we have particular health and fitness-related goals, it is going to be necessary to manage our intake of these types of foods if we are going to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

When you are thinking about whether or not to enjoy one of these types of foods, don’t think of it as cheating, being bad, being good, etc. Your food selections should not have a moral value attached to them. Rather, now that you have a bit more information on this topic, simply consider how it is contributing to or detracting from your current health and fitness goals and make your decision accordingly.

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